Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990) was an Indian diplomat, politician, and a sister of India's first prime-minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. She was active in the Indian freedom movement and held high national and international positions.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was born in Allahabad in what was then the United Provinces (later, Uttar Pradesh) on August 18, 1900, and was given the name Swarup Kumari ("Beautiful Princess") Nehru. She was the eldest daughter of a distinguished Brahmin lawyer, Motilal Nehru, and eleven years younger than her brother, Jawaharlal. Accustomed to luxury and educated at home and in Switzerland, she was greatly influenced by Mohandas Ghandi and became identified with the struggle for independence. She was imprisoned by the British on three different occasions, in 1932-1933, 1940, and 1942-1943.
In May 1921 she married Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a foreign-educated barrister from Kathiawar. At that time she changed her name to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. The Pandit's had three daughters, including the novelist Nayantara (Pandit) Sehgal. Her husband died on January 14, 1944.
In 1934 Pandit's long career in politics officially began with her election to the Allahabad Municipal Board. In 1936 she was elected to the Assembly of the United Provinces, and in 1937 became minister of local self-government and public health—the first Indian woman ever to become a cabinet minister. Like all Congress party officeholders, she resigned in 1939 to protest against the British government's declaration that India was a participant in World War II. Along with other Congress leaders, she was imprisoned after the Congress' "Quit India" Resolution of August 1942.
Forced to reorient her life after her husband's death, Pandit traveled in the United States from late 1944 to early 1946, mainly on a lecture tour. Returning to India in January 1946, she resumed her portfolio as minister of local self-government and public health in the United Provinces. In the fall of 1946 she undertook her first official diplomatic mission as leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. She also led India's delegations to the General Assembly in 1947, 1948, 1952, 1953, and 1963.
Pandit was elected to India's Constituent Assembly in 1946. Shortly after India's independence in 1947, she joined the foreign service and was appointed India's first ambassador to the Soviet Union. In early 1949 she became ambassador to the United States.
In November 1951 she returned to India to contest successfully for a seat in the Lok Sabha (India's parliament) in the first general elections. In September 1953 she was given the honor of being the first woman and the first Asian to be elected president of the U.N. General Assembly.
For nearly seven years, beginning in December 1954, Pandit served as Indian high commissioner (ambassador) to the United Kingdom, including a tense period in British-Indian relations at the time of the Suez and Hungarian crisis' in 1956. From March 1963 until August 1963 she served as governor of the state of Maharashtra.
Jawaharlal Nehru's death on May 27, 1964 came as a great shock to her. In November, she was elected to the Lok Sabha in a by-election in the Philpur constituency of Uttar Pradesh, which her brother had represented for 17 years. She was re-elected in the fourth general elections in 1967, but resigned the following year for "personal reasons."
Furious at Indira Ghandi's (whose maiden name was Nehru) state-of-emergency suspension of democratic processes from 1975 to 1977, she campaigned against her niece. Her efforts resulted in an electoral defeat for Ghandi.
Pandit had not been politically active for several years when she died in Dehru Dun, India on December 1, 1990. On the occasion of her death, President Ramaswami Venkataraman described Pandit as a "luminous strand in the tapestry of India's freedom struggle. Distinctive in her elegance, courage, and dedication, Mrs. Pandit was an asset to the national movement."
Pandit's own writings include So I Became a Minister (1939); Prison Days (1946); a touching essay, "The Family Bond, " in Rafiq Zakaria, ed., A Study of Nehru (1959); many interviews and articles, and innumerable published speeches. Her daughter, Nayantara (Pandit) Sahgal, presented revealing portraits in Prison and Chocolate Cake (1954) and From Fear Set Free (1963). There is no good biography of Pandit, but three books by professed admirers are interesting: Anne Guthrie Madame Ambassador: The Life of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1962); Vera Brittain Envoy Extraordinary (1965); and Robert Hardy Andrews A Lamp for India: The Story of Madame Pandit (1967). She is often referred to in books on the Nehrus and in biographies of her brother, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Obituaries for Pandit appear in the Chicago Tribune (December 2, 1990) and the Washington Post (December 2, 1990). A brief biography of Pandit appears on-line at the A&E Network Biography site located at www.biography.com.